Column: Is E-mail Truly Reliable?

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Everyone understands e-mail's economic advantages over physical mail. Aside from cost, e-mail has a richness and interactivity that makes it more than a simple one-directional communication vehicle.

But can we really rely on e-mail? When a marketer pays 39 cents to send a piece of First Class Mail through the U.S. Postal Service, he doesn't worry about the final disposition of that message or wonder how it will be regarded by the recipient. What about with e-mail?

Such questions are becoming even more apt. For the first time, we have clear evidence of the drop in total volume of direct mail. According to the USPS, total volume for April 2006 versus April 2005 was down 2.4 percent for First Class messages including bills, transaction messages, statements and payments, while Standard Mail, through which marketing messages are sent, fell 2.5 percent. Direct mail marketers are on notice: The medium is officially in decline.

Can e-mail fill the gap? Its strengths are that it is free, open and anonymous, but these have become weaknesses. Spammers and phishers have exploited these weaknesses, flooding the system and placing an enormous burden on recipients and mailbox providers. Mailbox providers have responded to protect recipients by reducing privileges of all volume senders. Unlike reliable First Class Mail, e-mail suffers uncertain delivery (20 percent of legitimate e-mail is blocked or delivered to spam folders, according to Pivotal Veracity), mangling of message copy and creative (much content often suppressed by default) and low trust by recipients (nearly 55 percent of consumers delete all bank e-mails).

How can trust be restored to e-mail? Though a number of authentication standards are in development -- technologies that make it possible to know a message from a bank really is from that bank -- technology is but one part of a larger ecosystem involving implementation, policy and our own habits and expectations.

What if a trusted class of e-mail could let mailbox providers extend privileges to senders? If each sender were accredited, each message from the sender securely authenticated and the ongoing reputation of the sender carefully monitored, the mailbox provider could trust messages sent through such a system. Those senders and messages could be extended privileges like assured delivery, full functionality and even a trust icon in the recipient's view that indicates the message is safe.

A secure system like this could restore privileges that cannot be extended to less-secure standard e-mail. The benefits to volume senders and to consumers are obvious: assured inbox delivery, confirmation of delivery and detailed delivery status reports, full message functionality and messages explicitly marked as trustworthy.

Though a trusted class of e-mail would not be appropriate for all bulk senders, we believe a wide variety of senders would capture benefits. Senders would have to show low complaint rates and adhere to e-mailing best practices to qualify. But trusted-class e-mail could yield enormous benefits for marketers seeking to nurture relationships with consumers. Senders could generate more revenue per e-mail, with the combined benefit from higher delivery and links and images enabled increasing revenue per e-mail by as much as 100 percent.

Increased customer satisfaction by users who routinely received expected messages would result in lowered support costs dealing with non-delivery and phishing attacks. A system that restored trust to e-mail in this way would protect both the marketer's brand and the customer.

The opportunity for e-mail to truly grow into the medium we need is upon us. Already with shrinking volumes of direct mail, the transition has begun. The opportunities for leveraging trusted-class e-mail are obvious, as are the benefits to senders and receivers. It's time for e-mail to grow up.

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